SOTTO VOCE (595 College, at Clinton, 416-536-4564) Once a streamlined and inexpensive offshoot of next-door Trattoria Giancarlo, Sotto now flies solo with so-so salads 'n' pasta and sometimes spectacular panini. But when this tiny space gets crowded, overwhelming cigarette smoke and hi-NRG tunes destroy the atmosphere. Complete dinners for $30 per person, including all taxes, tip and a glass of wine. Kitchen open Monday to Wednesday 6:30 to 11 pm, Thursday to Saturday 6:30 pm to midnight, Sunday and holidays 6 to 10 pm. Bar open Monday to Saturday 5 pm to 2 am. Fully licensed. Access: one step at door, washrooms in basement. Rating: NN
Little Italy's Sotto Voce has recently come out as a born-again bar (see sidebar, this page), and the transformation is far from flattering.
On an early Tuesday evening, we find the 40-seater jammed to the rafters. We snag the sole remaining table only to discover that we're right in the middle of the smoking section. But what's the difference? Since there's no signage otherwise, the whole place looks like a smoke zone.
I'm no rabid anti-smoker or a reformed cigarette fiend. In fact, I've never smoked in my life -- not even inhaled -- although I will admit to kissing someone daily for the last 15 years who smokes like a salmon.
As long as a room is properly ventilated, I don't really mind if someone lights up or not. But put a dirty ashtray near me while I'm eating and I'm likely to hurl.
We sip goblets of under-poured and inexplicably priced Chianti -- $8 glass/$40 a bottle, a one-to-five ratio instead of the customary one-to-four -- as we zero in on Sotto Voce's limited lineup.
Because our server can't be heard above the deadening thump of the CD mix tape, we have no idea what the daily $10 pasta special comprises. We settle on what turns out to be a very average serving of mussels (Cozze alla Putanesca Bianca, $9) nearly devoid of its promised spicy kick. As well, we sample Fettina de Polenta ($7), tasty slices of cornmeal polenta topped with sliced mushrooms and copiously sauced with a gorgonzola cream.
But the cigarette smoke so overwhelms (forget second-hand smoke -- this is almost first-hand mouth-to-mouth inhalation) that we're driven out less than an hour after we arrive.
A second visit exactly a week later finds only four other diners -- all are smoking, but the exhaust systems seems to be coping -- and the music at a conversation-friendly volume. Our menu selections turn out better, too, especially the delicious namesake sandwich layered with smoked chicken, olive pesto, roasted peppers, onion confit and Camembert ($7).
When it opened seven years ago, this wine-bar satellite of next-door Trattoria Giancarlo was easily one of the most romantic boites in town. With its understated Yabu Pushelburg decor and simple yet sophisticated card of pastas and panini, tiny Sotto Voce was one of the originators of College Street cool.
But its new owners' apparent approval of a pro-smoking policy makes Sotto Voce as appealing as a stamped-out butt.
Here are some other local restaurants that have classified themselves as bars so their patrons can keep smoking.
Bar One (924 Queen West, 416-535-1655)
Bellevue Diner (61 Bellevue, 416-597-6912)
Gus (1033 Bay, 416-923-8159)
Innocenti (587 King West, 416-203-0551)
La Palette (256 Augusta, 416-929-4900)
Lolita's Lust (513 Danforth, 416-465-1751)
Queen Mother (206 Queen West,416-598-4719)
Verveine (1097 Queen East, 416-405-9906)